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Ten Years After: Germany's Lusatian Sorbs Determined To Survive

Ten years ago, as communist rule crumbled in East Germany, leaders of the country's indigenous Lusatian Sorb minority feared that the end of generous government subsidies could sound the death-knell for the small Slavic group. But laws enacted later ensured the Sorbs' survival. Now, however, the Sorbs face their greatest challenge since East Germany imploded in 1990 -- a challenge from within their own ranks. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visits the Lusatian community and sends this report from Bautzen/Budysin.

Bautzen/Budysin, Germany; 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The smallest surviving Slavic group, the Lusatian Sorbs, have been declining in numbers steadily since the 19th century, mostly through assimilation and emigration.

In the days of the communist East German regime, the Sorbs claimed that they numbered 100,000. They enjoyed generous subsidies that enabled Sorb schools, publishing activities, news media, folk and even rock music groups to operate in the Upper and Lower Sorbian languages. Both languages are closely related to Polish and Czech, although with a strong German influence.

In early 1990 -- after the Berlin Wall was opened and East German leaders announced that they also wanted a united Germany -- Sorb leaders conceded that their numbers had been inflated to ensure adequate subsidies. They said that in fact they only numbered 60,000. They also expressed concern that with the demise of Soviet-backed East Germany their existence as a Slavic people would be seriously threatened.

The August 1990 Treaty on German Unification -- signed by both East and West Germany -- specifically guaranteed the right of Sorbs to their language and culture. The state parliaments of Saxony -- home to some 40,000 Upper Lusatian Sorbs -- and Brandenburg -- home to about 20,000 Lower Sorbs -- subsequently passed several laws guaranteeing the protection and promotion of the Sorbian People.

The Union of Lusatian Sorbs is an umbrella organization, known as Domowina. Spokesman Jurij Luscanski recently poked fun at all the laws in a conversation with RFE/RL. His comments were made in Upper Sorbian:

"You know, the laws help. We have such a good situation that the whole Sorbian people could be replaced by a law. But laws are just paper and are insufficient if we ourselves aren't engaged. It is up to us to ensure that these laws are actually implemented."

The Domowina's monopoly is now facing its most serious threat since the collapse of Communist rule. A group of Lower Lusatian villagers earlier this year founded their own movement, "Ponaszemu" -- meaning "our way." Ponaszemu activists claim they are not Sorbs but Wends. Wend is an old German word for Slav and in addition to the Sorbs in the past also referred to Slavs and their descendants in Austria. The Lower Lusatian Wends complain that the Lower Sorbian language that they are taught in school does not correspond with the language, they call Wendish, that they speak at home.

A co-founder of Ponaszemu, Klaus Lischewsky, a Protestant minister, says Wendish is being suppressed in Lower Lusatia by what he terms "professional Upper Lusatians from Bautzen." He says the end of communist rule brought no change for the Wends. In his words, "the same people, having hidden their party badges, continue to refer to the Wends of Lower Lusatia as Sorbs."

But Upper Sorb writer and former Domowina leader Jurij Koch rejects Ponaszemu's claims. He notes that the GDR also used the term Wend in Lower Lusatia interchangeably with the term Lower Lusatian. Koch recommends Lischewsky read a history book.

Critics say that what the Ponaszemu activists speak is just a dialect with an inordinate quantity of loan words from German and that these activists fail to understand the difference between a standard language and its colloquial form.

Although the population of Lower Sorbs is estimated at about 20,000, only a small fraction -- no more than a few thousand -- are actually fluent in Lower Lusatian or Wendish. Nevertheless, Ponaszemu may well succeed in ending Domowina's monopoly by getting half the state subsidies granted the Lower Lusatians. Ponaszemu is sponsoring its own candidates for the Council for Sorb-Wend matters after the new Brandenburg state parliament is constituted.

In the view of the business manager of the independent Domowina publishing house, Ludmila Budarjowa, with so few Sorbs or Wends in Lower Lusatia, the Ponaszemu movement is about money. She says competition between the two organizations for limited funds will be harmful to all Lusatians. Rather, Budarjowa says Ponaszemu and Domowina should work together for the revitalization of the language, for example by establishing Lower Sorbian/Wend kindergartens. She says they should also try to reach agreement on what should be taught as the standard written language and what elements of the colloquial language should be taught.

Budarjowa says worse may be in store if a similar movement develops among Upper Lusatian Sorbs. As she puts it, "40 years of work to develop the language may have been for naught". She says Sorbs continue to face linguistic assimilation by the German majority. There is still no Sorbian language TV in Saxony and only one hour a week in Brandenburg. Nevertheless, Budarjowa tells RFE/RL there is still hope.

"What is new is that in the course of globalization and increasing uniformity, a united Europe is trying to find its roots and relearn the language of the Sorbs or Wends."

The Sorbian School Association, which Budarjowa headed until recently, has launched an innovative "total immersion" project in which German and Sorbian kindergarten pupils are taught in a combined Sorbian- and German-language environment. In her words, "we are striving for perfect bilinguality."

Some Germans who have settled in Lusatia since German unification nine years ago are setting an example by attending evening classes in Upper or Lower Sorbian and by sending their children to bilingual schools. Thus there may still be hope that the languages of the Sorbs will not die out.